I was born into a family of entrepreneurs. My grandpa owned a convenience store and became known in my hometown for his cream-filled logs–a donut caked in cream and sprinkled with toasted coconut and almonds. To this day there is a small number of individuals who possess the recipe for the cream smothered on top and between these donuts. These infamous calorie-filled logs are now being sold at my mother’s convenience store she opened a mere eleven years ago. Three years prior to my mom following in my grandpa’s footsteps I became an entrepreneur when I graduated from massage school and became a licensed massage therapist.
My motivation to go to massage school came not from a love for helping people–though a bonus–but from working for three years in the food industry as a line cook and waitress. I was sitting in a computer lab during my senior year of high school when one of the teachers approached me asking where I planned to go to college so she could list it in the graduation announcement. I had no clue. She told me if I figured anything out to let her know–I had two weeks. Two weeks is an insane deadline for deciding what I wanted to do with my life–or at least the next step in my academic career– I knew a four-year college was out for me. I had failed math not once, not twice, but three times in my four years as a high school student. I would have to pass in order to go to college, or worse pay to take it again in college.
A day or two later, I walked into the local massage school to inquire. The story seems ridiculous, and likely that’s because it was ridiculous. One day I was asked where I would attend college and the next I picked from one of the three institutions in town as if it hadn’t previously occurred to me I needed to make this decision. Phillip, the man who owned Blue Mountain Academy for the Healing Arts, was an excellent salesman and convinced me of a career where I could make people feel good and make good money.
Making good money is relative, of course. After two solid years of scraping by, I began to face long hours, the potential for burnout—and good money. I had to learn a new skill–boundaries. I had to learn to say no to appointments that would overschedule me, leaving me tired and worthless to my family. Massage is, after all, both emotionally and physically demanding. It was easy to calculate the number of clients on my schedule (let's say I had 5 scheduled) and multiply that by the $60 I was charging at the time–$300–and multiply that by five workdays– $1500–and again by four weeks in a month–$6,000 and feel motivated to keep over scheduling. But I never took home $6,000 in a month doing massage. Any business owner knows that the expenses to operate must be factored in, and then there are life factors—cancellations by my clients, no-show appointments, and my own illnesses and appointments. Not to mention I also had a baby in the first 2 years of starting my business–adding unpaid maternity leave and babysitter challenges.
When I walked into that massage school in 2009 to inquire, I figured that at the very least I would acquire a skill I could fall back on and/or help me pay my way through college. I didn’t plan to enjoy it or be successful at it, those were bonuses. I just knew that I didn’t want to keep working at Pizza Hut as I was in high school. My entrepreneurial roots were growing.
In 2013, I began teaching group fitness classes and in 2015 I opened The Diet Doc La Grande, a franchise that I still own, only now privately as Be Well Studio LLC. When I started The Diet Doc, I was motivated to find other ways to bring in income that would require less of me physically. And to break up the monotony. I was coaching clients toward a healthy lifestyle. My days were full–and I liked it.
Typically, I woke up around 4 in the morning to train. During the first five years of my business, I trained for a marathon, competed in four bodybuilding competitions, and participated in several 100-mile bike rides. I would train for one or two hours on weekdays and then take care of my daughter and be to work before 8. During the workday, I would split my time between doing massage and meeting with nutrition clients. At the peak of my nutrition career, I met with nearly fifteen clients a day. In the evenings and on the weekends, I would catch up on emails and answer clients' concerns via text.
My business was a growing success, yet I felt like there were holes in my career. My income fluctuated significantly. In August of 2017, I brought in an impressive $13k thanks to a promotion I ran via The Diet Doc. But in another month my income could be closer to $2-3k. Aside from that, health insurance was expensive, and the options weren’t as good for the self-employed; high deductibles and an enormous monthly premium (currently I pay $860 a month to insure my husband and I). And then there was retirement–I was only twenty-five years old but being married to someone whose company contributed to his retirement, it was on my radar. I was six years into my business, and I was beginning to question the career path I had chosen. In these moments of doubt, I did what I could–I started contributing to my own retirement account, and my husband got a new job that allowed me to be on his health insurance. Still, the doubt lingered in the back of my mind, was being self-employed a good idea?
I was trying to follow the belief that if I chose a job I loved, I’d never have to work a day in my life. I’m not even sure who said this, and whether it existed or not. I was getting antsy. My job was dictating my life and the more I noticed it, the more I resented it and knew I needed change.
I came across the book 168 Hours by Laura Vanderkam during a time I felt ready to analyze how I was spending my time. Aside from the financial challenges, I was craving a separation between my passions and my profession. I had been pulled into my career like quicksand, I was waist-deep into my professional life, and I wasn’t sure I even had a personal life. Starting my business at 19 meant I never had the traditional college experience of making friends and memories. I went straight to work. I felt disconnected from my marriage, I wasn’t spending much quality time with my daughter, and friends…? Aside from the many clients I’d grown close to, I didn’t know what friends outside of work were. I was willing to accept that my job wasn’t responsible for my happiness and that it was possible I could learn to manage my time more efficiently. But I wasn’t sure how to make the transition. As recommended in Vanderkam’s book, I started by tracking my time to the minute. In doing so, I was able to see how many hours a day I was wasting. I tracked how much time I picked up my phone to check email, and social media, and how often I was messaging clients during ‘off’ hours. But the thing that shocked me the most was how much time I wasn’t spending with my family. The first thing I did was delegate home tasks I had taken on that could be shared, lightening my load. For example, I started using grocery pick-up and had my husband pick them up on his way home from work–he conveniently drove by Walmart every day to get home. During the time I would typically shop, my daughter and I created a weekly one-on-one mother/daughter date after school.
I started putting time limits on apps that I felt distracted by and added the Kindle app to encourage more reading. I arranged the Kindle app strategically on my phone so that it was located where the Facebook icon used to be, and I deleted the Facebook icon altogether. I began time-blocking at work. Time blocking is a time management strategy that meant I scheduled what I would be doing throughout the day to avoid doing other things that consumed me. This meant I had a scheduled time twice a day to check emails, not all day. It meant I let my clients know they could text me anytime they had a question, and I would reply to them during my working hours. Time blocking meant I had set times to see clients and stuck to those times. I was slowly but surely taking control of my day. My husband and I started scheduling things that were important, like date nights.
Still, there was a general unhappiness within me. A feeling of, is this really it? I couldn’t imagine the future I was after; the one where I would get to travel more and retire. I was on a mission to figure out how to fix it. At home, I wanted to reconnect with my husband, and at work, I wanted to gain more credibility. Maybe even make a career change that supported my vision of paid benefits. And so, I decided that going to college would be a good idea. With my new time management skills, I created pockets of time to study, work, and be with my loved ones.
As perfect as that story sounds, I struggled. My husband was diagnosed with cancer and suddenly my love at work crumbled. His cancer drained any last passion I had left from my profession. I could no longer listen to my clients. I could no longer help them achieve their goals. The vanity that came with coaching them toward weight loss felt tedious compared to helping my husband deal with how cancer was changing his life. And so, I walked away from coaching. I took a job working as an office manager at a granite company and slowly started to remove myself from my business as a coach. Luckily, I had two coaches and a fitness instructor that worked in my business so I handed off my clients to them and took an admin position that required fewer hours per week from me. I couldn’t bring my best self to coaching the way I felt my clients deserved so I stepped away, no more coaching, no more massaging.
At first, the career change was welcomed. The construction industry couldn’t have been more different than healthcare. I didn’t have to hear about the reasons people felt they couldn’t change their habits–my work felt more black and white. But it didn’t solve my unhappiness. I was discovering that my previous job was neither causing my unhappiness nor the new job fixing it. I was going to have to face the real problem at hand. First, I would have to figure out what they were.
As I inched closer to 30, the pressure I felt was getting heavier. I thought I was personally going crazy, unique in my situation, there was no such thing as the 30-year-old crisis, was there? Later I would meet people and read books by authors who all have mentioned a similar feeling as they neared 30 years old. That feeling of, is this it? In Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert leaves her marriage at 30. In Dean Karnazes’ book, Ultramarathon Man, his 30th birthday comes with the realization that he, too, is unhappy with his life. His successful job in marketing had left him feeling unfulfilled. His solution on that day was to leave the bar where he was taking shots with his buddies and run–for 30 miles.
Possibly the realization of adulthood sets in at 30. I felt I was supposed to have my life figured out. I was supposed to have a career I am proud of. I was supposed to have it together. A friend of mine who is feeling a similar challenge recently asked her mom if she felt like she “had her shit together.” Her mom just laughed and said, “I’m 60 and I still don’t have my shit together!”
After my 30th birthday, I undid all the things I thought I had figured out. I left my marriage, I split custody of my daughter, I changed majors in college allowing me to graduate with whatever degree my accumulated credits would make, and I set out to try again.
On a hot summer day standing next to a tall slab of granite I found myself listening to my 22-year-old coworker complain about his job. I felt a little humbled. If anything I should be able to ‘get’ where he is coming from as I recently changed careers myself. But as I listened to him talk, I felt the urge to tell him that maybe he was asking too much from his job, and the real problem was below the surface.
“It’s just the same thing every day. It’s boring,” he said.
“But you create beautiful work, and you’re good at it.”
“Yeah, but I want a job without so much responsibility. Something with benefits, you know?”
I did know. But all I could see were the things his job was giving him. Many of the benefits he didn’t have were simply because he worked for a small business. As a small business owner, it isn’t feasible to offer your employees health insurance and a 401k. That aside, he did have paid vacation, and ample flexibility to work the hours he preferred. After he quit the company added an IRA account with a company match for all their employees to try and fill in the benefits gap. Yet, health insurance is a benefit many are after.
Now, remarried and working for my husband within the granite business he owns while also managing my business, we both face and embrace the challenges of self-employment, times two! I consider getting a new job, a real job that will come with the benefits I’ve never had before only to realize that I’m looking at this whole dilemma wrong. I am looking at my job as if it isn’t real. For some reason, I am considering cooperate jobs–at both the local and national level– and government jobs as real and my work as irresponsible. Yet, mom-and-pop shops and locally owned businesses are where it all began. Becoming an entrepreneur at 19 was a choice I made. Social norms along with the many pressures I've put on myself have allowed me to flounder for the last several years questioning if my job was legitimate. Leaving me to believe my job isn't real.
I have come to realize all of the benefits I have as a self-employed person. High school aside, I’ve never worked for anyone else. I’m not even sure I could. I’ve grown accustomed to choosing how I spend my time and having the flexibility I do. Currently, I work as an office manager at the granite shop with my husband, this is where I spend half of my day doing admin work for the three businesses my husband and I own. The other half is spent doing massage or consulting with nutrition or training clients. To make sure I don’t get bored, I am also furthering my education. When people ask me what I do for a living, because it is a more interesting topic than the weather, I cringe a little. It feels like a complex question. I base my answer on the person asking. I’m a massage therapist. I’m a nutritionist. I’m an office manager. I feel as if I am destined to always have multiple odd jobs. When I decided to go to graduate school, I thought maybe an MFA would lead to a career where I wasn’t juggling. A career that would allow me to take off a couple of hats. Maybe that job would be teaching, and I would receive benefits like health insurance. But I have since learned that adding writing to the mix likely won’t fit that, it will simply give me one more hat to juggle. And maybe it’s normal to have more than one job.
While on the phone with a writer friend, she listed the various ways she pays her bills. Her latest book took her 4 years to write. The advance she got to write the book seemed significant, but it wasn’t enough to live on for 4 years. She ghostwrites, freelances, and teaches at two different universities to pay her bills and live comfortably each month. As an adjunct professor, she, of course, does not receive health benefits. More and more universities are leaning towards hiring adjuncts, it’s cheaper for the university. The negatives, of course, land on the professor.
Growing up, my mom always had more than one job to pay the bills. That was modeled to me as normal. In fact, the 2013 census recorded 8.4% of individuals worked more than one job at a time. This statistic seems low to me, and likely because these stats don’t include odd jobs like selling goods at the local farmers market or a person’s weekend cleaning business. On top of the jobs my mom received W-2s from, she also helped my aunt cater and sold crafts at the annual Christmas bizarre to afford Christmas presents for my sister and me growing up. This wasn’t consistent income, but it was supplemental income she relied on each December. Later in life, when my mom purchased her store, she would give up the odd jobs she had. She is now working more than 70 hours a week at one job, more hours than the sum of her previous four jobs. She is no longer receiving employee benefits like health insurance and must contribute to her own retirement fund. My mom is making it big as a business owner, she’s able to afford these benefits and more, yet I’m not interested in the life her business has given her. She is, what I call, married to her work.
What I have discovered through questioning my career–I want a job that affords me life. You may have to read that statement again. Affords me life. It took a lot of soul-searching to realize I have that self-employed. The biggest salary and the best benefits don’t always come with time to live and enjoy life. I have days where I struggle with feeling like my job doesn’t have any real purpose. I wish I didn’t have to pay for things like health insurance out of pocket. But, when I ask myself if my job affords me life, the answer is yes. Slowly but surely, I have rearranged my schedule to fit my desired day-to-day. I have done enough arranging that I am not sure I will ever be comfortable working for someone else from 9-5. Due to the volume of different tasks, I do each day I rarely get bored. And when things slow down, I am able to do this, write.
My ability to take work off and travel–and save the money to travel–is another bonus. In the last 12 months, I have taken an impressive amount of time off work. More than I did in the first 10 years of my business combined. The thought of applying for a job that gave me paid vacation, but limited it to two weeks, well, I don’t think that would work for me. And clearly, it’s unnecessary if I can do it without the benefit of paid time off. I also found a partner that wants to travel with me! Walking the line of self-employment is a delicate balance of push and pull. Give and take. Deciding at 19 I was going to work for myself came with many positives and some negatives. I’ve also witnessed clients leave a high-paying job for a lower-paying wage purely to reduce stress. I watched them walk away happier. More proof that benefits don’t equal happiness. I do wonder, though, if our country adopted universal healthcare if many of the challenges that the self-employed faced would be resolved. I’ve also learned that being angry that I live somewhere that doesn’t have universal healthcare resolves nothing. That’s an essay for a different day.
Out of the 168 hours a person has in a week, Americans spend roughly 40-50 of them working. Therefore, work consumes a large portion of our waking hours! It’s important to find ways to enjoy it, but it is also critical to spend pockets of time every day doing other things that bring joy. I’ve done several things to ensure I am spending my waking hours doing things I love, or that I feel give me purpose in addition to my job. I’ve learned that my happiness requires effort. It won’t always fall into my lap and often I will have to seek it out. I believe all too often we forget that work is there without as much effort, what we do outside of our 40-hour workweek may require a little more intention.